If it is not true, then it should be

Phillips Educator Carla Freyvogel on Pierre Bonnard’s depiction of reality in his paintings in Bonnard’s Worlds (on view through June 2, 2024). 

My cousins and I, jaws slack, eyes wide, stare at our grandfather. He is seated at the head of the kitchen table, delicately dabbing the corners of his mouth with his napkin and sipping wine. He has just told another one of his spellbinding stories. 

Then we ask, “Really? Is that a true story?” We hung on to his every word and laughed at his outrageous descriptions and cartoon-worthy voices. We loved his stories. 

“Well,” he explained, “if it is not true, then it should be.” 

This statement baffled me in my youth. Did my grandfather just simply make up a story? Did he lie? It did not seem like a lie. A renowned storyteller*, his stories always seemed completely believable, yet wonderfully dramatic. As he expressed real life experiences, they were filled with heightened conflict, absurd coincidences, unexpected wisdom, and aggrandized feats. The characters in his stories had foibles that were understandable and universal. He made summers feel hotter and winters feel colder. 

Later in life, I could grasp that what happened in his stories was not his point. The characters were not as important as the emotions. The settings, while fantastical, did not define the tale. What mattered was the unbridled and irrepressible spirit of humankind. 

As I stroll through Bonnard’s Worlds, taking in the rich vistas, the shimmering yellows of summer’s warmth, the rumble jumble of garden colors, the swaths of paint in hues so unique that I must contemplate the order in which they went on the canvas, I am taken into a scene; be it Normandy or the Riviera, the garden or the bedroom, I understand that Pierre Bonnard did not give a fig about reality. 

Pierre Bonnard, Southern Landscape with Two Children, 1916–18, Oil on canvas, 54 3/4 x 77 7/8 in., Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Gift of Sam and Ayala Zacks, 1970, Photo Courtesy of AGO, © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Even without a realistic rendition of Bonnard’s garden, I am swatting away flies, hearing chickens clucking, and feeling the warmth of sun on my arms. In his shimmering interiors I can sense the aloneness of his wife, Marthe, before their dining room cupboard (Now what was I looking for?). I feel the warm weight of a dog in my lap and the languidness of a long bath in a deep tub. 

I am inspired by Bonnard’s work to have these experiences. I am not presented with reality; I am not told the true story. But, if it is not true, then it should be. I am dealing with a version of the truth that has been deftly distilled, giving me the spirit of it all. 

Wait, wait! The tiles in Marthe’s bathroom were white? If they were not the slightly undulating shapes of glistening purple, succulent orange, flaming red, and mottled teal, then they should have been! 

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1936, Oil on canvas, 36 5/8 x 57 7/8 in., Musée d’art moderne de Paris, Purchased from the artist, 1937, for the Universal Exposition of 1937 © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bonnard said, “For the painter, the presence of the object, of the motif, gets in the way while he is painting, so after working for a time, the painter can no longer recapture the idea that he started with.” 

So, it was for my grandfather that the reality of the story got in the way of its point. He wanted to recapture the essence of the idea that he started with. The month of the year, the number of dollars owed, the age of the farmer—these details got in the way of the point of the story. The idea of the story must be preserved so that in all honesty, if it is not true then it should be.  

*Nelson C. White (1900-1988) was a landscape painter in the style of American Impressionism. He was also a noted storyteller. https://archive.org/details/lp_connecticut-characters_nelson-c-white